Sunday, October 12, 1998
By Pat Murkland
Roadrunner lives up to
its cartoon image
As the morning sun warmed a Colorado Desert wash, Jim Cornett looked at his watch. It was just after dawn.
Two roadrunners stepped from the shadows and scurried among the smoke trees like commuters just off a morning train. Every day the wild birds hunt together for breakfast in this wash outside Palm Desert.
"They're on time," Cornett said.
No coyote was lurking. No box was smoking with Acme dynamite.
But these birds (Geococcyx californianus) look a lot like the cartoon roadrunner (Tastyus supersonicus).
And they have a personality to match.
"They love the chase . . . the thrill of the game," Cornett said. "They like to be chased by enemies and they like to flirt with death."
And when they do, Cornett is there to watch the desert dramas and record what he sees.
The 25-year natural history curator for the Palm Springs Desert Museum has made it his lifetime mission -- and passion -- to discover scientific information about this quirky member of the cuckoo family, a bird that would rather run than fly.
Every week Cornett spends 20 to 25 hours in the desert wash, watching and photographing this pair. This winter he plans to explore whether they hibernate, which isn't as far-fetched as one of the cartoon coyote's schemes to catch a roadrunner. Another Coachella Valley resident, the common poorwill, is the only bird in the world known to hibernate -- so far.
Cornett plans to attach radio transmitters to these roadrunners to track and observe their behavior. He said he first witnessed a roadrunner's nighttime torpor, or ability to lower its body temperature and slow its heart rate, when the birds fell asleep on his lap while he was watching television.
Yup, on his lap. Cornett incubated eggs and raised roadrunners at home before he found a place for his research at the museum.
Cornett, 50, said roadrunners fascinate him because they are so unusual.
The birds about the size of a hen live throughout Riverside and San Bernardino counties and are the Southwest's mischief-making smarty-pants.
As the two roadrunners walk along the desert wash each day, they communicate with up to three dozen or so vocal sounds (sorry, no "beep, beep") and move their long tail and the punk-like clump of feathers atop their heads like an airport worker flagging a plane toward a runway gate.
Cornett speaks fluent roadrunner.
The other day, for example, the wild birds were so close in the desert wash that a visitor nearly tripped over one. The roadrunner ran for cover under a nearby bush and clacked its beak loudly. But it wasn't scolding the human -- and Cornett understood.
"Where's the Cooper's hawk?" he asked.
The hawk suddenly was there, dive-bombing low. But the predator flew upward and past the bush. It had missed its target -- again.
Cornett explained that the roadrunner had been calling to warn its mate about the hawk. Roadrunners mate for life.
Their names? No, he said, this is science. They are bird nos. 701 and 702.
They often dare and double-dare the resident Cooper's hawk. But one day a couple of years ago they didn't show up. That also was the day that Cornett saw one of their two babies in the hawk's beak.
As Cornett photographs the birds and keeps records of his observations, he is writing a roadrunner book that's due out in March. He's also preparing an exhibit for the Palm Springs museum and planning a Palm Springs April 17 symposium expected to attract about 200 roadrunner fans and scholars from across the nation.
The University of California, Riverside, Extension plans to co-sponsor the roadrunner conference. Cornett also hopes that Warner Bros., the producer of the Wile E. Coyote v. Roadrunner cartoon duels, may become interested.
Although Cornett is a scientist, he considers it his duty to help people find ways of connecting emotionally with the desert he loves so much. "The mind is easy to reach with the data," he said. "The heart is a much greater challenge."
And although he is dedicated to data, he said that the other day when the female didn't show up in the wash, he wondered whether the Cooper's hawk had at last won the dare. He felt a little sad. But the female came the next day for another chase -- and for more Cornett research.
James Bryant, the natural history curator at the Riverside Municipal Museum in Riverside, is among researchers who know Cornett as one of the nation's top roadrunner experts. Bryant also sees Cornett as picking up the mantle of Edmund C. Jaeger.
That Riverside-based naturalist discovered much about the Colorado Desert in the first half of the century and was the first to find that some poorwills hibernate.
Bryant said that in the tradition of Jaeger, Cornett's curiosity and sense of wonder drive his research and the hours of patient observation that he spends out in deserts. Cornett has written 14 books and, as Jaeger did, often draws on his observations to tell the stories of desert wildlife.
Cornett said that when he was young he read Jaeger's books again and again, and later went on some of Jaeger's desert group camping trips. "He was the person more than anyone else who got me excited about the desert."
As Cornett grew up in the San Francisco area and Los Angeles, he relished his family's wilderness trips. He later took what time he could to be in the Colorado Desert, and as soon as he could, he moved there. He and his wife have raised their two daughters in Palm Springs.
Each day as Cornett finishes his observations in the desert wash, the wild roadrunners escort him up a slope and to his truck.
How can he possibly observe this personable pair day after day and not name them?
"OK," Cornett said: They are Bob and Ray-anne, after the radio comedy team of Bob and Ray.
"You got me to confess," he said.